For photos from the Meadowlands contact

Monday, October 5, 2015

Ocean Downs Raceway, vintage 1981 ...

by Peter Lawrence, VFTRG contributor.

I hear racing was canceled Saturday night at Rosecroft Raceway due to, so I hear, weather conditions and a loss of some or all the track lights.
That reminded me of something that happened at another Maryland harness track, Ocean Downs Raceway, during the summer of '81.
I was a youth of 25 or so, and thought I was America's youngest harness track PR director. That is, until I found out that a fellow who would later become a good friend - and eventually, PR man at Roosevelt Raceway -Barry Lefkowitz, had the same job at at Jackson Raceway in Michigan, and was even younger than me.
Darn you, Barry! That distinction was supposed to be mine!
Anyway, one night at Ocean Downs, a teeny operation (way, decades, before it became a racino and acquired decent purses) inland from Ocean City, we lost a bank of lights on our lower turn.
(The photos here are the grandstand in a stock shot that approximates how the place looked in 1981, and a newer shot of what I think is the lower turn of Ocean Downs' half-mile track, probably the way it looks now, with the old hub rail removed.)
Our track co-owner, president and GM, who shall go unnamed, but who had the initials of "JHB," was, shall we say, thrifty, to a fault.
A set of the track lights went dark during the racing program, but John Howard (oops, almost let his whole three-name name slip out) would be ding-dang darned if he'd call off the races and lose a dime's worth of revenue.
(He used to sell programs right at his own table in the clubhouse dining room, to avoid paying anyone to work a booth. No kidding.)
So he quickly dispatched as many track employees to park their cars on the lower turn as possible, all pointed across the track and toward the rail. With their headlights on, of course.
And the races went on as scheduled, with maybe a few minutes lost during the deployment of employee cars.
I don't remember if we got the whole rest of the card raced, or just a race or two. But it was probably all of them.
If someone could locate videotapes of that night's program - which almost surely don't exist - they'd be treated to vintage race calls by Billy Perkins (who was also our racing secretary), which included these words ...
"And they pace around the lower turn, out of the light and into the dark ..."
Of course, followed soon after by ...
"Now they come out of the dark and into the light ..."
Never a dull moment at the Ocean that summer.
More stories, including how and why I was unsuccessful in getting Bob Farrington to bring Rambling Willie to race at the Ocean, some other time.
(Here's a hint, as if you haven't guessed the obvious. It had to do with money.)
P.S. - The track was officially known as "Ocean Downs Raceway," or so said our letterheads and envelopes. (I don't remember if the staff got paid with checks, or maybe envelopes of untraceable cash.) Seems like you only needed "Downs" OR "Raceway," but that was the name. It later became "Delmarva Downs," then "Ocean Downs" again.
PPS - The reason I'm so sure the audio race calls are long gone, outside of the fact that it was 34 years ago, is that I don't think the audio was even recorded. The replays we showed in-house were silent. And our TV system was black and white. But that's another story.
PPPS - Ocean Downs seemed like a place a million miles from harness racing civilization in '81. Remember, no simulcasting, no e-mails, no texting, no Internet. One of my daily highlights was looking at the out of town programs that most tracks and program directors shared with each other by mail, to see what was happening in the real world.
PPPPS - I almost sprang free for a night out at the Meadowlands that summer, to enjoy the treat of seeing the Woodrow Wilson 2YO pace. I only had one night off a week, as I recall, Monday, and I guess the Wilson - which was a BIG DEAL back then, remember - was apparently on a Monday that year. I got about ten miles out of Berlin, Maryland, and boom, my car radiator blew. Getting towed back to my starting point felt like George Bailey's unsuccessful on-screen attempts to leave Bedford Falls in "It's a Wonderful Life."
I wouldn't trade that summer for anything, all $225 a week of it. And I had to pay for my own dinner, if I wanted to eat in the clubhouse. A good parking spot, close to where I worked? Yes, I'd have to pay for it.

1 comment:

Marv said...

Great story. I wonder if the good old days of racing for $800 purses at places like OD are better than the slots-fueled purses we see today. I went to OD Racino (or maybe I should say Raceway-Casino to keep things consistent) a few years ago with my family. The grandstand is basically a casino. I couldn't walk my then 3 y/o son through the building. I had to go around the outside to get to the apron. Of course, I had to do the same with PPk with him too. On the other hand, at least there is racing in MD.